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Academic freedom protection in draft constitution

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly has adopted a constitutional provision that will guarantee protection of academic freedom. The law-making body approved Article 32 of the new constitution last Monday – but the full constitution still needs to be voted into force by 14 January.

Adoption of the new edict requires the support of two thirds of the assembly's 217 members. If the constitution fails to receive this support, it will have to be put to a public referendum.

The measure – passed by a vote of 171 for, six against and six abstentions – states that “academic freedoms and freedom of scientific research shall be guaranteed”. It also requires that the state seeks “to provide the necessary means to develop scientific and technological research”.

The new Tunisian constitution is a culmination of a revolt against the regime of former president Ben Ali, which was ousted in January 2011.

The protesters in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in Tunisia were joined by many university lecturers and students who hoped to see an end to censorship. But without backing from the law, academic freedom in Tunisia remained under threat.

In the past academics like Habib Mellakh, a professor of French literature at Manouba University and a member of the Monitoring Centre for the Observance of Academic Freedoms in Tunisia – an organisation with close trade union associations – have publicly complained about arbitrary assaults on academic freedoms in the country.

In recent years lecturers have become caught up in clashes between Islamist and more secular activists, and have suffered assault and threats. Female lecturers have been harassed by conservatives.

Scholars at Risk, which has been concerned about pressures on higher education communities in Tunisia and throughout the Arab Spring countries, said in a statement last week that it supported the inclusion of language explicitly protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy in national constitutions, basic laws and national higher education statutes.

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, or SAR, based at New York University, said that by including academic freedom in the new constitution by an almost unanimous vote, Tunisian legislators had clearly affirmed the importance of higher education and academic freedom to the future of the nation.

“This legitimises the concerns of those, Scholars at Risk included, who have urged authorities to do more to protect the higher education space against pressures, especially those originating outside the university,” he told University World News.

Quinn hoped that as the new constitution came into force, it would lead to thoughtful implementation that respected the unique role and values of higher education, including academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and ensured the physical security of universities and their members – without which academic freedom could not be fully exercised.

“This in turn will strengthen the higher education sector and enable it to most effectively fulfil its responsibilities to the state and society,” he said.

Quinn added that the inclusion of academic freedom in Tunisia's constitution sent an important positive message to other states in the region and elsewhere, that they should similarly demonstrate commitment to quality higher education by enshrining academic freedom and institutional autonomy in their constitutions.

The new constitution was the result of the positive democratic transition that Tunisia was undertaking, he said.

“Inclusion of academic freedoms in the constitution, beyond recognition of their fundamental importance, can be seen in part as a response to restrictions and pressures on intellectual freedom and the higher education space during the recent years of transition as well as under the prior ruling dictatorships.”

Quinn said it appeared that Tunisia would soon join many newly democratic states that have included explicit protection for academic freedom and intellectual liberty in their new constitutions.

Last year Scholars at Risk co-organised an international conference in Tunis together with Tunisian partners and New York University's Center for Dialogues on “The University and the Nation: Safeguarding higher education in Tunisia and beyond”.
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